Limits and Potential of a Multilateral Approach to Counterinsurgency: Afghanistan and NATO

by Chiara De Cuia

First published in Small Wars Journal

While Afghanistan is far from being a success story, it provides valuable insights in what may become a model of future counterinsurgency. Perhaps a war in Afghanistan 2.0. After providing an overview of the conflict, with special focus on the full-scale insurgency phase of the conflict begun in 2006, the paper will continue with an analysis and comparison of both the American counterinsurgency efforts under Operation Enduring Freedom and the international contribution under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, and will conclude with an assessment of the limits and potential of a multilateral approach to counterinsurgency.


Insurgencies are as old as time, an intrinsic element of the history of many countries and peoples. While insurgents have always been praised for their adaptability and capability of retaining lessons, both from personal experiences as well as from other groups’(Menachem Begin, leader of the Jewish Irgun, wrote how he was inspired by the Italian Risorgimento or Irish Republicanism1 and the Viet Cong fully embraced Mao Tse-tung’s teachings), counterinsurgents, on the other hand, have had a very short memory, willingly disregarding the past, until it is too late: the most infamous examples being the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nevertheless, counterinsurgents are not immune from change: with the 2001 war in Afghanistan, there has been a change from the historically single nation-led counterinsurgency campaigns – as the French case in Algeria or the American one in Vietnam – to a multilateral effort.

In Afghanistan, while the initial successful military effort to topple the Taliban regime in 2001 was an all-American endeavor, when violence escalated, eventually culminating in a full-scale insurgency in 2006, the (then NATO-led) International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – established by the United Nations Security Council to support nation-building efforts in 2001 – found itself nolens volens, in the midst of it. As Sir Olaf Caroe – the last British governor on the northwest frontier province – wrote: “Unlike other wars, Afghan wars become serious only when they are over.”2

Sixteen years have passed since the beginning of the so-called war in Afghanistan, which has caused innumerable casualties and sweeping destruction and, as result, witnessed a renewed insurgency following the 2011 substantial drawdown of US and coalition forces, and the progressive withdrawal of some countries. As of today, there are still about 8,400 US troops, 2,000 of which are dedicated to counterterrorism mission,3 while the remaining are operating alongside 7,000 NATO troops,4 under the new NATO Resolute Support Mission (RSM), the natural evolution of ISAF, which began in 2015, to train and advise Afghan troops. The US still has a strategic interest in Afghanistan, as it remains a sanctuary for terrorist groups,5 threatening both national and international security: President Donald Trump’s administration has made that quite clear when it dropped the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb (aka the ‘Mother of All Bombs’), destroying a network of underground tunnels used by the ‘new’ jihadi organization, ISIS.6

While Afghanistan is far from being a success story, it provides valuable insights in what may become a model of future counterinsurgency. Perhaps a war in Afghanistan 2.0.

After providing an overview of the conflict, with special focus on the full-scale insurgency phase of the conflict begun in 2006, the paper will continue with an analysis and comparison of both the American counterinsurgency efforts under Operation Enduring Freedom and the international contribution under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, and will conclude with an assessment of the limits and potential of a multilateral approach to counterinsurgency.

The Afghan Insurgency

Nine days after the heinous 9/11 attacks on American soil, President George W. Bush declared before congress a “global war on terror.” While al-Qaeda finally claimed the attacks only in 2004, American intelligence had gathered enough evidence within days, proving the link with al-Qaeda, which had an influential presence in Afghanistan supporting the Taliban regime.7 As the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden,8 indicted for his role in the attacks, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), with international assistance, in October 2001.

Operation Enduring Freedom, with the support of the local Northern Alliance (local anti-Taliban forces), successfully toppled the Taliban regime’s leadership within months, and managed to oust the remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda forces scattered throughout the country – especially in the south and the east – soon after.9

The aftermath, as envisaged by the Bonn Agreement,10 saw the establishment of the Afghan Transitional Authority by the Emergency Loya Jirga (grand assembly), which elected Hamid Karzai as president of the transitional administration and who eventually became head of state in 2002,11 forming a government which included Taliban moderates.12 The focus was on nation-building and reconstruction, supported by the UN Security Council-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF),13 a multistate coalition, mainly operating in Kabul. Furthermore, special attention was devoted to the security sector reform, composed of five pillars: the training of the Afghan military and border security forces under US guidance; counter-narcotics, led by the UK; the judiciary, left in Italy’s capable hands; Japan leading disarmament and reintegration of former combatants; and the police force trained by Germany.14 The latter, the Afghan National Police (ANP), was an untrained, corrupt force manned primarily by factional commanders and their militias,15 posing the incredible challenge of transforming it into an effective civilian police force: one of the biggest challenges of the war.

The Bush administration however, given the purely counterterrorism nature of the operation in Afghanistan, refused to commit to nation-building, providing less aid than promised and needed,16 and aimed to keep a “light footprint,”17 militarily speaking, as the attention (and resources) was gradually shifting to the imminent invasion of Iraq (March 2003). In fact, by late 2003, both US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President Hamid Karzai declared the end of major OEF combat operations.18 While there was official aversion to engage in nation-building and counterinsurgency, about 30,000 soldiers (both American and NATO) remained in the Southern and Eastern regions, de facto conducting a proto-counterinsurgency, supporting the Afghan National Army (ANA).19

In fact, despite the rapid success of OEF, the post-Taliban regime situation in Afghanistan was far from stable. The Taliban who had fled, found sanctuary in the areas along the lengthy, mountainous border with Pakistan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the Baluchistan Province and the North-West Frontier Province,20 where they reconstituted, trained, and replenished their finances with the support of al-Qaeda.2122 As David Galula wrote, a rugged and difficult terrain and a long border with an insurgent-sympathetic country are great geographic conditions for the insurgents.23 Furthermore, poppy cultivation and drug-trafficking also provided a stable financial basis for the Taliban,24 as well as representing a further destabilizing element for the country.

As early as the summer of 2002, the Taliban had initiated a small-scale offensive to overthrow Karzai’s government and coerce the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces, with the support of other anti-government force.25 By late 2003/early 2004, such violent efforts escalated into a low-level insurgency in rural areas of the east and south:26 The Taliban attempted to assassinate President Karzai in September 2002,27 and then again two years later;28 they conducted cross border raids against both coalition and US forces, ANA soldiers,29 undermanned police stations;30 and attacked soft targets as foreign aid workers.31 Facing growing violence, most NGOs evacuated from the areas desperately in need of that aid.32

The increasing Taliban presence in the south and east, paired with their growing ability to influence, threaten, intimidate, and capitalize on local grievances vis-à-vis the shortcomings of the Afghan government, triggered revolts among local populations.33 Such grievances stemmed especially from the marginalization of the Pashtun especially (the center of gravity for the Taliban), the country’s largest ethnic group (despite Karzai being a Pashtun himself) and the targeting they suffered because of their “sympathy” for the Taliban, who hold stronghold in Pashtun areas.34

A RAND study has outlined three variables that influence the rise and success of an insurgency namely, local police capability, local governance, and the availability of sanctuary for insurgents.35 In Afghanistan, all three factors were manifest and were definitely underestimated by both American and International forces when devising post-regime change procedures, thus paving the way for what Seth G. Jones defined as the “perfect storm.”36

The south in particular, and the east as well, given the geographical distance from the capital city, experienced a deep security vacuum security, which coupled with the booming opium trade and the presence of safe havens across the border in Pakistan, enabled the Taliban’s evolution into a full-fledged insurgency by 2006,37 capable of mounting sophisticated, deadly attacks and controlling large swaths of territory with a shadow government.38 In the north and west of the country, the Taliban could only mount relatively smaller attacks,39 especially given the lack of safe-havens around those areas.

In a purely Maoist fashion, the Taliban insurgency proceeded through the strategic defensive and strategic stalemate phases, culminating with the strategic offensive in 2006. In fact, since 2002, the insurgents had managed to reconstitute, recruit, train and develop intelligence and operation networks, which allowed them to carry out attacks to demoralize and deter foreign forces, undermine reconstruction, and weaken the government, slowly replacing it with Taliban institutions40 in many rural areas.41 Violence increased dramatically, especially as Afghan insurgents observed those in Iraq, adopting their tactics as the remote-controlled devices and timers,42 or al-Qaeda’s sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Suicide attacks surged from 21 in 2005 to 139 in 2006,43 and the targeting of coalitions forces doubled, while attacks on Afghan forces quadrupled.44

The strategy behind the Taliban insurgency has been that of “fourth generation warfare” (4GW), carrying out a multidimensional struggle – political, economic, social, and military – winning and coercing popular support, the quintessence of insurgency. On the strategic level, like any other insurgency, the goal was to wear the enemy out to ensure policy change.45 To do so, the operational level is focused on ideas and messages, tailored to each field (political, economic, social, and military) and delivered through the tactical level,46 be it with attacks on government officials, infrastructure, propaganda, or provision of services, embracing the concept of “armed propaganda”. Like prior ‘generations’ of insurgencies, Mao’s concept of protracted struggle was upheld in Afghanistan. As, Lt. Gen. David Barno, former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, “In Afghanistan, Americans have all the wrist watches but Afghans have all the time.”47

Finally, 4GW insurgents have embraced a networked organizational structure as opposed to hierarchical one.48 In fact, one could speak of multiple localized insurgencies in Afghanistan,49 carried out by a multitude of groups. When the 2006 full-scale insurgency erupted, it was fought by a new force – the ‘neo-Taliban’ – a heterogenous mix of ideologically driven groups as the Taliban, the predominant one, al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, anti-Taliban forces controlled by warlords, mercenaries, and opportunists,50 who opposed governmental and foreign intrusion.51

Operation Enduring Freedom and American Counterinsurgency Efforts

Operation Enduring Freedom was the American response to the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, wanted for his role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, thus initiating the “global war on terror.” The primary goal of US strategy was the disruption and denial of sanctuary to the al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan and in other states, as Bush stated in his speech on September 20, 2001: “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.”52

Preceded by the incursion of US Special Operations and CIA forces to overthrow the Taliban regime, and with the support of Western allies and the local Northern Alliance – anti-Taliban rebels – the war began on October 7, 2001, mainly relying on air power and precision weapons.53 By 2002, OEF’s main objectives had been partially achieved, as the Taliban regime was ousted, but Osama bin Laden was still in hiding. Countering terrorism was America’s strategic goal, not nation-building, as highlighted by the “light footprint” approach adopted for OEF.54 Thus, while there was still turmoil in some regions of the country, American and International policy-makers were quite optimistic (or naïve) on Afghanistan’s transition to stability,55 leaving nation and capacity building mainly in the hands of the (small) International Security Assistance Force. Nevertheless, in late 2002, US forces (USFOR-A), together with the UN, and nongovernmental organizations, developed the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), consisting about 100 soldiers, Afghan advisors and representatives from civilian agencies to enhance security, reconstruction, and especially, the reach of the Afghan central government.56

Furthermore, American attention (as well as resources) gradually shifted towards Iraq and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in early 2003. Such diversion, as Seth Jones notes, also impacted international commitment to Afghanistan.57 As American efforts in Iraq began to crumble, the situation in Afghanistan started to ferment as well. Stabilization, nation-building and local force-building efforts had delivered little or no results, if not actually amplifying institutional corruption and the security forces’ ineptitude and inability to protect the population. This was more truthful with regards to the Afghan National Police (ANP), as the US-trained Afghan National Army (ANA) had some degree of competence, but suffered from lack of resources and staff,58 and was not prepared to fight a counterinsurgency.

The neo-Taliban offensive gradually escalated, erupting in an insurgency, which grew particularly fierce in the southern Helmand Province. Initially, like most insurgencies throughout history, it was underestimated and misunderstood, and consequently was resisted through military operations focused on direct action, responding to the enemy’s fire (enemy-centric). Conventional ‘clear and sweep’ or ‘search and destroy’ operations59 were carried out, such as Operation Anaconda (March 2002),60 Operation Mountain Viper (August 2003),61 Operation Avalanche (December 2003),62 Operation Mountain Storm (July 2004),63 and Operation Lightning Freedom (December 2004),64 to name a few. These operations were aimed at denying sanctuary to terrorists and insurgents, and destroying their infrastructure and organizations by killing or capturing insurgents.

American operations clearly disregarded Roger Trinquier’s statement “We know that the sine qua non of victory in modern warfare is the unconditional support of a population.”65 The ground efforts were supported by air-power and air-strikes66 which destroyed and killed insurgents, yet at the cost of popular alienation and antagonization. In fact, collateral damage was highly detrimental to both American and Coalition forces, as a Pakistani diplomat aptly explained: “when a child is killed in one of these villages, that village is lost for 100 years. These places run on revenge.”67 Furthermore, searches and night raids68 were seen as violently intrusive, violating the rights of families and the culture of the local people.69 Finally, while local small-scale population-centric efforts where attempted already in 2003,70 as shown by the establishment of the PRTs, and their diffusion across the country (numbering 23 by 2006),71 the ‘hold’ element after clearing an area was widely neglected, especially due to the paucity of troops (roughly 1 per 1000 inhabitants in 2005),72 thus failing to provide consistent security to the population in rural areas.

Counterinsurgency doctrine finally began to inform US engagement in Afghanistan in late 2005,73 after General David Petraeus resurrected COIN in Iraq and oversaw the drafting of the Army/Marine Corps Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency,74 which adopts the principle of measured force, and views COIN as a long-term political and military commitment.75 Nevertheless, COIN was adopted as the official US strategy in Afghanistan only in 2009. The result was a ‘surge’ of US troops, from about 20,000 in 2006 to almost 70,000 by the end of 2009,76 and reaching a peak of 100,000 troops the year after77 (a portion of which operated under the NATO-led ISAF). The surge was accompanied by a White Paper envisaging additional assistance to the rural areas of the country, agricultural sector job creation, additional mentoring and enlarging of the Afghan security forces, integration of population security, local governance, and economic development, and initiation of an information campaign to improve the image of the US and the coalition78 thus, delineating a proper population-centric approach.

Despite finally understanding and adopting the right strategy for this war, the new American approach had few chances of succeeding, as this new commitment had an expiration date attached. In fact, the intention behind the surge was to gain strategic momentum and create a necessary breathing space to facilitate the transition of responsibilities to Afghan security forces by 2011.79 While the transition was postponed to 2014, following the 2010 Lisbon Summit,80 US combat troops gradually started withdrawing in 2011.81

The reasons behind the American COIN failure are multiple. The overarching factor was the lack of an American comprehensive strategy addressing post-regime collapse Afghanistan, or better, the adoption of a strategy based on naiveté, which completely underestimated and downplayed the country’s history, actors, and geopolitics. As a result, counterinsurgency was formally adopted too late into the conflict: six years too late. The neo-Taliban insurgency slowly resurged in 2003, if not earlier, escalating in 2006 and gaining further momentum in 2009. By fighting the insurgents in an offensive-kinetic manner, aimed at attacking the enemy but not securing the population, the US alienated the Afghan people, especially when collateral damage occurred. This left space and time for the insurgents to set up their own shadow government,82 taking advantage of the Afghan government’s inability and unwillingness to exert sovereignty83 beyond major city centers. Thus, when US forces finally began ‘clear and hold’ operations and especially engaging with local leaders, the challenge was to dismantle such shadow institutions and persuade the population and its leaders to rely and trust the official government.84

Furthermore, the realization of the undermining effect air-strikes had on the operation came only in 2009, when Lt. Gen McChrystal announced restrictions on their use: however, almost a decade of civilian deaths (or collateral damage) had already harvested rancor in the Afghan population.85

The prolonged negligence of a population-centric approach was mirrored by the disregard of creating a functioning police force. ‘Complementing’ the German police training effort, given its limited results, the US established a police training program as well, under the US Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, which however lacked personnel and had to contract DynCorp Aerospace Technology.86 The essential drawback of the program was lack of on-the-job, one-on-one mentoring following the theoretical training.87 The Afghan National Army instead, had been somewhat effective in some occasions, yet was a source of controversy as well, due to reports of abuses on civilians, corruption, and its unbalanced ethno-tribal composition.88 Furthermore, lack of human resources hindered the achievement of the target size, as tribalism and family ties played a fundamental role in keeping the Afghan men close to their land and keens.89 Finally, the ANA was not trained to carry out counterinsurgency, which would have been a valuable asset to complement the efforts of the American surge.

To that regard, the ‘surge’ decision was strongly opposed by Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Eikenberry, the United States ambassador to Afghanistan, who believed that such substantial American military presence, paired with a “clear, hold and build” plan,90 would only increase the Afghan Government and its security forces’ dependency and inability, thus preventing the Afghanization of the country and conflict.91

The underlying problem however, was ignorance of the country’s history and social structure. As mentioned, Afghanistan saw a multitude of insurgencies which were the result of the country’s tribal society. Tribes are both dynamic and localized, perpetually shifting tactical alliances, rendering them unpredictable to foreign occupying forces, yet remaining isolated from the surrounding environment. On the one hand, this makes it almost impossible for counterinsurgents to translate successes across the country, and on the other, the aforementioned Afghanization becomes unattainable as leaders think only in terms of local calculus of power,92 not deeming broader causes as the chase of Islamic militants as strategically important. Thus, Afghanization of the fight would come to rest only on US diplomacy and cash, not internal motivation,93 requiring timeless US attention and resources, perpetuating the patron-client element (and by extension, corruption) of Afghan society. The result would be an ephemeral Afghan commitment linked to the availability of money: if a police officer earns about $2.00 per day and an Afghan army soldier about $4.00 a day, while the Taliban fighter about $8.00 a day,94 it is not hard to imagine the future trend, ceteris paribus.

Finally, counterinsurgents always face two major issues: time and domestic public opinion. The 2009 surge and shift to counterinsurgency was an optimistic attempt, realistically doomed to fail from the beginning. The US had already been in war for eight years and had simultaneously engaged in a second front for five of those years. By 2009, about 5,000 US soldiers had perished on those two fronts and the post-9/11 patriotic call to arms was waning vis-à-vis the bloody stalemate. Initiating a successful population-centric counterinsurgency meant to commit time, and Americans’ patience was expiring.


Following the 9/11 attacks, the international community immediately reacted to the barbarity, pledging military assistance and support. Exemplar was the case of NATO which, twenty-four hours after the attacks, invoked Article V of the Washington Treaty (a decision taken by consensus).95 While the US welcomed NATO’s logistical support and intelligence sharing, it preferred to maintain military control of the invasion, accepting only contributions of special forces to OEF,96 consigning nation-building and reconstruction to the International Force.

Following the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, which toppled the Taliban regime within two months, the Bonn Agreement laid the foundation for international nation-building and reconstruction in Afghanistan. Among the provisions was the establishment of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF had three main strategic objectives: maintaining a secure environment for free and fair elections and the development of the rule of law; aiding in reconstruction; and supporting the development and training of Afghan security forces,97 and it was geographically limited to Kabul and its outskirts,98 while the rest of the country was under the watch of America’s ‘light footprint’ OEF.

As the Taliban had not been truly defeated and had the opportunity to reorganize across the border in Pakistan, they had managed to re-ignite violence and turmoil by 2003. By that time, international efforts for nation-building and security forces training had not yielded results, leaving Afghanistan still fundamentally undeveloped, and a fertile ground for an insurgency.

In October 2003, NATO assumed strategic command, control, and coordination of the Force, requesting the UN Security Council99 for a geographical expansion of the mandate, which helped free up US troops for Iraq.100 The result was a four-stage extension of ISAF’s area of responsibility, at first in the north (December 2003), then west (February 2005), south (December 2005) and east (October 2006),101 taking responsibility for the entire country (map on the following page). By 2006, NATO-led ISAF had assumed command of the operations of most (not all) provinces, given resource constraints, and saw partner countries take over some US-run PRTs and establishing new ones.


In an alliance or multilateral coalition, the organizational issues usually faced by a country, such as garnering resources or coordinating military and non-military activities, are amplified. Despite the generous pledges by many countries following the 9/11 attacks, few fully upheld them, affecting ISAF’s resources, and creating a gap between ISAF’s extended mission and effective capability. Furthermore, as in the case of the US, the war in Iraq shifted other countries’ attention and resources away from Afghanistan, and the perceived decline of US commitment to Afghanistan affected the international will to engage.

Just as the US Forces in Afghanistan (USFOR-A), ISAF was understaffed especially as the mission evolved over time. In its initial phase as security provider in Kabul and outskirts, it counted about 5,000 troops, reaching a peak of 42,000 in 2011, after expanding to the whole country.103 ISAF’s expansion in fact was not met by a proportional increment of forces, rather the supply of forces was based on voluntary contributions of the member countries. This gave rise to deep political disagreements among allies over burden-sharing,104 a prevailing issue still widely debated today.

As the mission expanded – increasing the demand for troops contribution – a larger issue arose. ISAF had been created as a low risk stabilization operation with a civic component,105 devised for areas such as Kabul and its surroundings. While the north and west of Afghanistan were quite stable regions, the southern and eastern parts of the country still faced turmoil and became the frontline of the neo-Taliban resurgence. ISAF’s geographical expansion thus called into question the nature of its mission.106

At the 2006 NATO Summit in Riga, talks about a Comprehensive Approach (CA) involving a wide spectrum of civil and military instruments,107 initiated discussions on the inclusion of combat operations within ISAF’s mission. As the situation in Afghanistan escalated, the deployment of combat operations became highly politicized. In some provinces – such as Helmand and Kandahar in the south – military engagement was more a necessity for the PRTs led by the United Kingdom and Canada respectively.108 However, for countries as France, Germany, Italy, and Turkey, operating in more stable areas, engagement in combat became a controversial domestic issue resolved by adopting “national caveats,” dictated by domestic politics, especially if the decisions were taken by coalition parliaments (where decisions are usually the result of compromise).109 Furthermore, the parallel conflict in Iraq and its questionable legitimacy played a role in the decision-making process.110

The caveats limited the geographical scope of the countries’ contingents and direct combat,111 thus operationally debilitating NATO-led ISAF’s Comprehensive Approach capabilities (i.e. counter-insurgency efforts), being Germany, France and Italy the major troop contributing nations, and creating tension among members on free-riding and burden-sharing, perfectly summarized by US troops’ joke “ISAF stands for "I Saw Americans Fight.”112

Faced with the Afghan insurgency (or insurgencies), ISAF’s counterinsurgency resembled American efforts, as well as the mistakes. Given the shortage of troops, the theoretical ‘clear, hold, and build’ strategy was reduced to merely clear, and the poor training of local police forces did not prevent reinfiltration of insurgents in the cleared areas:113 ISAF was just ‘mowing the lawn.’ Furthermore, the 2008 financial crisis had dramatically reduced allies’ defense spending, as many adopted fiscal austerity.114

When engaged in combat, ISAF troops heavily relied on air-support as well, neglecting the adverse effects on the population, the same during cordon-and-search operations. Finally, as for the American case, nonexistent knowledge of Afghanistan, its history, social dynamics, and language hindered a real and effective Comprehensive Approach. An exception however, was the establishment of Female Engagement Teams (FETs), perfectly embracing one of the twenty-eight fundamental principles for counterinsurgency, identified by David J. Kilcullen.115 These teams, made up of female soldiers, were able to engage with Afghan women, overcoming the Afghan cultural setting of female segregation that had prevented male coalition security forces from interacting with 50% of the population.116 Just as the PRTs, this was an American implementation, subsequently adopted by ISAF.117

In addition, NATO as an alliance had never embarked in COIN before, while the participating countries had widely different experiences (France and Britain being a textbook examples), and thus different approaches. However, NATO also entirely disregarded its past successful efforts as the 1995 intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina or that in Kosovo in 1999.118 While both conflicts entailed conventional military intervention and a subsequent shift to peacekeeping, they would have provided lessons applicable to Afghanistan, as the importance and necessity of a consistent force on the ground, as in Bosnia-Herzegovina (half of which was American),119 or the experience of the Multinational Specialized Units in Kosovo, which provided an important presence of international police forces (as the Italian Carabinieri).120

As the US started shifting its strategy to counterinsurgency between 2006 and 2009, it also assumed continuous command of the NATO coalition from 2007 onwards, bringing its COIN experience to the table, yet maintaining ISAF somewhat separate from OEF, especially under French and German pressure.121 Until 2007, allies had assumed leadership on a six-month rotational basis, causing discontinuity.122 The US provided a much-needed leadership (especially with the deployment of additional troops) to the NATO effort,123 mitigating – yet not resolving – the issue of unity of command, afflicting the alliance.

All forces in Afghanistan – NATO, American and Afghan forces – were conducting operations in parallel and through different command arrangements, instead of under one chain of command,124 hampering the overall unity of effort towards a common objective, which required the synchronization of all military and civilian efforts. NATO itself has multiple chains of command, some answering to ISAF HQ and others to the respective national governments of the lead nations in charge of Regional Commands or PRTs,125 the latter providing a clear illustration of the effects of national caveats and disunity of effort. In fact, in 2010, there were about twenty-six PRTs led by fourteen states, each of which produced fourteen different solutions, undermining the overarching strategy, and creating confusion on the ground, especially for local forces.126

An additional interoperability issue, highly detrimental to a successful counterinsurgency, has been the inability to share operational and tactical intelligence in coalition operations.127 Operational intelligence includes information on leadership, force organization, dislocations, mobilization, external support and possible technical capabilities of the insurgents, while tactical intelligence includes data and developments on combat, the enemy’s tactics, indigenous political and ethnic developments, and indigenous attitudes.128 Furthermore, the type-focus of intelligence is equally important. US and ISAF’s intelligence collection was biased towards the insurgents, neglecting the importance of intelligence on the human environment in which the insurgents operate.129 While capturing or killing key mid-level and high-level insurgents is important, in Afghanistan it would have been more effective to have information on the localized contexts of operation.130

Finally, ISAF’s underlying cause of its lack of success was its strategic ambiguity. ISAF was initiated as a mission based on nation-building and security provision in a limited geographical area, namely Kabul and its suburbs, and was then extended to the whole country, without a consensus upon the evolving nature of the mission,131 thus affecting the countries’ degree of commitment and consequently the mission’s overall performance.


Sixteen years have passed since the toppling of the Taliban regime and the beginning of a protracted presence of both American and International forces in Afghanistan, involved both in combat and nation-building efforts. The result? Little has changed: International forces are still in the country in a support role of advising, training and assisting the Afghan security forces (NATO-led Resolute Support Mission); the neo-Taliban are slowly retaking territory;132 Afghanistan is still a safe-haven for Salafi-jihadi terrorist groups, ISIS being the newest member to join the club;133 and consequently, the US still has strategic interest in Afghanistan, as indicated by President Donald Trump’s administration when it dropped the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, destroying a network of underground tunnels, and by his administration’s intention to send more troops.134

Thus, Afghanistan certainly cannot be enumerated among neither American nor NATO successes. However, with regards to NATO, it is unfair to speculate on the alliance’s irrelevance based on this failure. This section seeks to reflect on the limits and potential of a multilateral approach to counterinsurgency, using the lessons learned from the NATO-led ISAF.


Counterinsurgency has been defined as “those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken by a government to defeat an insurgency.”135

While there is no cookie cutter approach to counterinsurgency, there are some additional elements that have been recognized as fundamental for a successful counterinsurgency: adopting a population-centric approach to secure the population; developing local security forces; as David Kilkullen wrote, “know your turf,”136 namely conducting Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace (IPB); and maintaining unity of effort.

Among the many issues within the International Security Assistance Force, and Operation Enduring Freedom as well, the cause of all woes can be traced back to the decisionmakers’ shortsightedness, naiveté, and disregard for the actual situation on the ground in post-Taliban Afghanistan. As a result, ISAF found itself fighting an “accidental counterinsurgency” despite it being anything but accidental. As mentioned previously, the preconditions for an insurgency were already apparent in the in the immediate aftermath of OEF’s success, as the Afghan government, as well as the army and police, were essentially nonexistent, and Pakistan – or at least the FATA – was providing sanctuary for the fleeing Taliban.

In face of this, conscious or not of the consequences, the US decided to shift its attention to Iraq and engage in another front. While it would have been hard to predict the outcome of the war in Iraq, or foresee the 2008 financial crisis, these have all been significant intervening variables.

ISAF’s initial UN-mandated mission was restricted to Kabul and envisaged nation-building and security provision, and was destined to fail since the very beginning. The mission, bounded by the availability of resources, had completely overlooked the institutional history of the country, by focusing nation-building efforts within the capital and not the rural areas. In a country were state-penetration is very limited, a bottom-up approach from the rural areas would have been more effective.

Such deficiency was slowly corrected with the expansion of ISAF’s mission to the entire country under NATO. In fact, ISAF took charge of most of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which however, never reached their full potential given the shortage of troops, limiting interaction with the population. Furthermore, the lack of cultural awareness also affected the way security forces were trained and advised. Appreciation of social dynamics, as patron-client relations, would have helped develop durable structures, capable of persisting even without external oversight.

Disconnection from the population was also both explanation and consequence of the tactics adopted during combat or search operations, such as air-strikes or night-raids, which alienated the people and created grievances.

While these shortcomings were the same affecting US forces, and are common mistakes in many counterinsurgency campaigns, the following apply to NATO, namely a collective security alliance, based on voluntary member contributions to operations, and whose decisions are based on consensus.

As NATO-led ISAF adopted the Comprehensive Approach, it included combat operations as well as a population-centric strategy. The Comprehensive Approach strategy however, found major obstacles on both the operational and tactical level. Operationally, national caveats dictated by domestic politics and the fiscal austerity following the 2008 Financial Crisis, restricted the scope of the new approach, creating tensions within the alliance that are still very much alive today, and affecting the tactical level as well, reducing the number of troops deployed, and heavy military equipment available. It is important to highlight how some of the major contributing countries (France, Germany, and Italy), were the ones applying national caveats.

Furthermore, NATO’s complex structure and decision-making process represent an important obstacle for counterinsurgency efforts. An example are Regional Commands led by different countries, which hamper coordination and unity of command as Regional Commands report to their ministries of defense, as well as the operational headquarters. Consensus decision-making instead, for which all NATO decisions are made after discussion and consultation among member countries, may affect the making of timely and effective decisions.

Finally, intelligence sharing (operational and tactical intelligence) has been an issue affecting interoperability, impeding coordination across national contingents and willingness to support one another’s operations.137

Given Afghanistan’s situation today, NATO-led ISAF (and the American OEF) ultimately failed, being failure defined as the inability to achieve the political goals envisaged in the strategy leading the mission. In the case of ISAF, these were nation-building, reconstruction, and security provision, none of which have been attained given the current situation of overwhelming drug trafficking, lack of pervasive governance and inadequacy of the Afghan National Security Forces to protect the population and borders.138 On the other hand, success would have been defined as the ability of international forces to put the Afghan state in a position to progressively provide and maintain a degree of security in the country: this was also the political goal leading the American surge,139 which clearly did not take place.

Finally, the war in Afghanistan not only represented a failure, but also a defeat. The withdrawal of the international combat forces in fact, marked the insurgents’ victory,140 who managed to wear down the enemy through a decade-long protracted conflict, and impeded the realization of any political goal by maintaining a deep and extended control of the population.


Despite multiple fundamental shortcomings, it is unjust to liquidate NATO’s (and by extension a multinational effort) potential for counterinsurgency after one attempt.

First, a multinational participation can decrease the cost of war, as opposed to the economic burden of a single-nation campaign. During the war in Afghanistan, despite having some cooperation costs, these were vastly outweighed by the benefit of the US not having to rotate a significant number of its own troops through Afghanistan for the indefinite future.141 Comparing the costs of the Vietnam war (between 1965 and 1975) and those of the war in Afghanistan (2001 – 2010), adjusted in Constant FY2011$, the Vietnamese war costed $738 billion, while the effort in Afghanistan only $321 billion.142

One may argue that Iraq, on the other hand, costed $784 billion (between 2003 – 2010).143 While the war in Iraq included a Multi-National Force as well, there are a couple of considerations to make, the first one being that the US devoted more resources to the conflict in Iraq, than that in Afghanistan. Second, each ally participating in ISAF sustained material and financial contribution to the operation until the end, for over a ten-year period. In fact, no member of NATO withdrew forces from ISAF, and only three Allies (Greece, the Netherlands, and Portugal) downsized their contribution, mostly because of the fiscal crisis.144 In Iraq, many countries participating in the Multi-National Force withdrew a couple of years before American withdrawal in 2011, thus increasing the burden for American forces.145 This brings to the last point, being that of the potential ‘legitimizing effect’ of multinational efforts,146 for example improving the perception of American Imperialism. This is especially the case if the mandate comes from the UN Security Council.

Finally, well-devised multinational efforts have the potential to fill in capability gaps. Exemplar is the case of the US with regards to training police forces which, given its limited capacity at the federal level, had to contract for the service, as explained previously.147 Taking advantage of allies’ strengths may prove more successful and increase effective burden-sharing. Perhaps in Afghanistan it would have been better to assign police training to the Italians, and the justice-sector reform to Germany.

As for the shortcomings addressed in the previous section, while some – as the structure and decision-making process – are highly unlikely to change, NATO has proved its ability to slowly adapt. Organizational issues are present within single countries as well, especially when they are vast bureaucracies, as the case of the US, which itself witnesses interagency and interoperability problems. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that such complications are mirrored in an alliance of twenty-eight members. Nevertheless, just as domestic organizations evolve, there is hope for multilateral ones as well. Factors as increased intelligence sharing, better coordinated chains of command, integrated civilian-military efforts, and the institutionalization of the lessons learned from Afghanistan’s COIN efforts within the alliance, may pave the way for a future model of counterinsurgency (while always keeping in mind the contextual nature of insurgencies).


Not all future security challenges will look like Afghanistan, but the gradual crumbling of weak and failing states, and the increasing presence of extremist and militant organizations and opportunists ready to wreak havoc, have proven to be a growing security challenge in the twenty-first century.148

War, and by extension insurgencies, are characterized by change and continuity from the past. Insurgencies have gradually evolved throughout history, from local (more common in the pre-globalization era), to externally supported insurgencies, as Vietnam, to today’s global-local insurgencies.149 The latter are often local insurgencies that become part of a wider regional or global struggle,150 especially if hijacked by jihadists as the Iraqi case, or the more recent Syrian case.

Counterinsurgency efforts shall meet this challenge with the same degree of change and continuity. The geographical extension of today’s insurgencies, the wide reach of their messages thanks to new technologies, and in general the developments brought by globalization, require not only a Comprehensive Approach to counter them, but also an integrated multinational capacity, to sustain their protracted nature economically, politically – given the legitimizing effect of international participation – and operationally, filling capability gaps exploiting allies’ expertise and experiences, which a unilateral effort would not have at its disposal.

ISAF was NATO’s first out-of-Europe mission. While the mission was a failure, it has provided some valuable lessons which, if not forgotten – as it often happens with counterinsurgents who almost all happen to suffer from short-term memory – may provide a new model of counterinsurgency both based on classical doctrines and tenets, but organizationally and operationally different.

However, a factor will still be determinant for counterinsurgency (be it unilateral or multilateral), namely domestic public opinion, which has often proved to be incompatible with protractedness. The longer the conflict, the higher the chances that the initial political motivation and relevance driving the counterinsurgency effort will erode, yielding space to doubts and questions on the worth of the commitment. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger commented on the war in Vietnam “The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.”151 This may change if insurgencies were to become global,152 posing a ‘global’ existential threat, providing counterinsurgents with the same inexhaustible willingness to fight driving insurgents. But hopefully there is still time for that.

About The Author

Chiara De Cuia is a candidate for M.A. in Security Studies at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service with interests in, but not limited to, terrorism and counterterrorism, sub-state violence, focusing on the MENA region and sub-Saharan Africa. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in 2015 at LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome, Italy, where she is from, and wrote and her thesis on Islamic State’s use of Social Media. Her professional experiences include internships at the International Institute for Counterterrorism in Israel, where she published her research on the link between ungoverned territories and terrorism, using Boko Haram in Nigeria as case study, and the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany.

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  8. Rabasa, Angel, et al. From Insurgency to Stability. Volume 2: Insights from Selected Case Studies. Rand National Defense Research Inst Santa Monica Ca, 2011. Pg.206    
  9. Ibid.    
  10. United Nations. Agreement On Provisional Arrangements In Afghanistan Pending The Re-Establishment Of Permanent Government Institutions (Bonn Agreement). December 5, 2001.    
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  13. United Nations Security Council. Security Council resolution 1386 (2001) on the situation in Afghanistan.      
  14. Rabasa, Angel, et al. From Insurgency to Stability. Volume 2: Insights from Selected Case Studies. Rand National Defense Research Inst Santa Monica Ca, 2011. Pg.207    
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